When One’s Contributions Are Ignored

Since 1976 when President Gerald Ford declared February to be Black History Month, the time has been used to focus on the contributions and accomplishments of prominent and lesser known persons of African descent. This has become such a tradition that I suspect most Americans are not familiar with its origins and some may even wonder why it is necessary. The answer to the latter is quite simple. For far too long, the accomplishments and contributions of persons of color (POC) were ignored and too often attributed to others. They were quite literally omitted from the study of history.

Dr. Albert Broussard, professor of history at Texas A&M University, says the following regarding the importance of Black History Month and its originator’s purpose:

“You can learn a lot from history, and learning about particular achievements of people who have struggled under great adversity can be tremendously inspiring to all people, not just African Americans, but all groups, whether it be from women or the LGBTQ+ community.

Black History Month not only  highlights important historical figures, but is an educational tool that teaches individuals about their history.

We celebrate Black History Month in February because Black people had traditionally celebrated the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, both of whom were born in the month of February. Oftentimes Black history is taught as a celebration of this great man or this great woman, but that wasn’t what [Dr. Carter G.] Woodson had in mind. He wanted this time to be a celebration of the achievement of Black people as a race, recognizing that Blacks were part of the history of this country from the very beginning.

Black Americans are pioneers who’ve built a society from the ground up since 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to America. However, even though the Black community has contributed to society throughout American history, Black history itself is just now becoming a widely taught subject.” [1]

Long before President Ford formalized Black History Month, there was a man who understood the need to promote the celebration and study of Black achievement. His name, as mentioned above by Dr. Broussard, was Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950).

In 1915, Woodson, a recent PhD graduate of Harvard, traveled to Chicago to attend a very special celebration sponsored by the state of Illinois. He joined thousands of other POC from across the country who came together to mark the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation and to celebrate the contributions and achievements attained in the years following the abolition of slavery. His part in the celebration was an exhibit on Black history. The response to the three-week event was overwhelming and inspired Woodson to form an organization for the scientific study of Black life and history. With A.L. Jackson and three others, Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH).

In 1916, Dr. Woodson established The Journal of Negro History to showcase his own research along with that of other Black intellectuals. By 1920, he was urging civic organizations to promote the findings of Black researchers and called upon his fraternity brothers in Omega Psi Phi to help in the effort. In 1924, the fraternity created Negro History and Literature Week, later known as Negro Achievement Week. Under his leadership, the ASNLH took on a greater responsibility for popularizing and promoting knowledge about the Black past. In 1926, Woodson announced via a press release that Black History Week would be celebrated in February. While POC had celebratory traditions surrounding the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, Woodson’s vision was far grander. His goal was to correct the way history is viewed, to create a tradition that would include the part that great and ordinary men and women of color had played in the advancement of civilization.

“We should emphasize not Negro history, but the Negro in history,” Woodson said. “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice.”[2]

His call-to-action was answered in school classrooms and in communities. The ASNLH rushed to produce materials for teachers and Negro History Clubs that sprang up around the nation. The efforts to fulfill Woodson’s dream grew throughout the post-war eras, the Civil Rights movement, and into our own time. What Woodson founded went through several incarnations in his lifetime, some of which he disdained, but one hopes he would approve the national celebration we recognize today.

Carter G. Woodson Memorial Park in Washington, D.C., is a block north of the home of the father of black history at 1538 9th St. N.W. That townhome is now a national historic site.

Resources and Additional Reading

https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month

https://time.com/4197928/history-black-history-month/

https://westportlibrary.libguides.com/BlackHistoryMonthOrigins

1.

https://africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/about

2. https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/history/info-2020/carter-g-woodson.html?intcmp=AE-HP-BB